First Lawsuit Over Ocean Acidification: EPA Ignoring the Problem, Green Group Says

  • Published on May 15th, 2009

A lawsuit filed Thursday against EPA marks the first legal action to deal with ocean acidification, reports the Environment News Service. The suit is brought on by the Center for Biological Diversity and blames the EPA for negligence in recognizing the impact of acidification in Washington’s waters.

It’s also important because it deals with the naming of carbon dioxide as a pollutant – something currently being contested by a “smoking gun” White House memo. The lawsuit has been brought up under the Clean Water Act, which regulates pollutants in water. From how I see it, this means that if EPA is found to be in the wrong under the Clean Water Act here, then CO2 will have been legally deemed a pollutant.

If successful, the lawsuit would also put acidified waters under Washington’s list of “impaired waters” under the Clean Water Act. These waters are those that don’t meet federal standards – and therefore require that something be done about them.

“We hope that it really increases awareness of problem,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “Ocean acidification is already here and we need to do something about it.”

This lawsuit comes after back-and-forth negotiations between the Center and the state of Washington that resulted in, well, nothing. The Center requested that the state put acidified waters on the list of impaired waters, but the state failed to do so.

According to the Center’s press release for the lawsuit, the last regulation on ocean acidification occurred in 1976 – long before acidification became big deal. This EPA standard put waters under impaired lists after they had deviated 0.2 units on the pH scale (a unit on that scale means a 10-fold difference in acidity).

This new lawsuit would specifically identify carbon dioxide as the cause of the change in acidity. Sakashita said that atmospheric mercury is already regulated this way under the Clean Water Act.

Ocean acidification is a consequence of carbon dioxide being absorbed by water. Since water absorbs CO2 at a rate about 50 times faster than the atmosphere, more global warming means a lot more CO2 in the water. The problem is that CO2 reacts with water to create hydrogen ions, which raise the acidity of a body of water. Higher acidity disrupts ecosystems and economies because some species have very low tolerance for changes in the composition of a water body.

A lawsuit hit Washington first because of recent evidence that acidification is happening at a more alarming rate on the West Coast than was previously thought. But this could only be the first of many lawsuits like this. The Center is working with about 10 different states on similar agreements, according to Sakashita. “I could foresee that there may be other lawsuits to follow,” Sakashita said. “Ideally we can have an agreeable outcome with states and take measures without having to sue them.”

The problem remains, though, that while the science is there to back up ocean acidification, states are waiting for data specific to their own bodies of water – data that aren’t yet available.

“There’s a lot of science but not a lot of political will to deal with it yet,” Sakashita said. “We’re tyring to raise that.”

Photo Credit: Amanda Peterka

About the Author

My name is Amanda, and I'm a recent grad from Michigan State University. At MSU I was involved in the environmental journalism program and have written for the school's environmental journal and E, The Environmental Magazine. I'm delving into freelancing now, and will spend the summer in NYC as an intern at NYC Parks and Recreation.